Would learning a martial art complement kayaking

I’m thinking I’d like to get more fit and learn something new over the winter (I’m not yet a winter paddler.) I currently paddle (lots of rolling practice this summer), do yoga, hike, and do some (admittedly limited) resistance training. I could just join a regular gym and do regular weight training and cardio, but if I could get the same benefits from learning something more exciting, that would be my I preference. Thanks for any advice!

Yes, for strength, flexibility and stamina. If you want solid “self-defense” application, especially for smaller or weaker person, start with Brazilian Jiu Jitsu (BJJ), a grappling art. Add on a striking art later on when you have developed confidence through freestyle “rolling” (BJJ sparring), e.g. boxing, kick boxing, Muay Thai.

PS. Solid martial arts techniques, be it in grappling or striking, is predicated on effective usage of a flexible and strong core. The same for good paddling and rolling techniques.


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Thank you. I have never done any kind of fighting art and I’m kinda… not exactly timid, but let’s say I have trouble using my own power confidently. That’s actually one of my issues with kayaking, I lack what you seem to have in abundance, the courage of commitment, let’s call it (though maybe you see it differently.) Anyway the idea of “fighting” kind of freaks me out, which is possibly a sign that it’d be good for me.

Would you say they all contribute equally to general fitness? And how high is the risk for injury in your experience?

The martial arts you chose, depend on your actual goals. For Greenland style rolling Tai Chi would be a good practice. More about balance and personal energy movement and control. Many of the other martial arts are more dynamic and Yes more prone to injury and bruises if that matters to you.

If it were me, I would look into Systema. I think that would complement kayaking quite well, while also teaching you to relax and follow natural movements.

I started a formal Martial Arts training regiment when I was 12. It was a Japanese style called Kempo Budokukan. I stuck with it never missing a session until I was out of Highschool and on my way to the USMC. Once in the Marines I started practicing Aikido and Taekwondo. Lastly I took up a training course in Korean Hwa Rang-do, when it was being taught by a man named Michel Echainis and his team but not long after he was killed in an airplane crash in Nicaragua in 1978. I continued the practice up until 3 years ago. I stopped doing it on a regular basis when I was 64. Now I only teach and train intermittently.
I have kept myself in good condition all my life, but age catches up with everyone sooner of later and the workout leave you strong and flexible, but eventually the injured and worn out joints and also old wounds and injuries start to show up again.
Having never paddled a kayak or canoe without the benefit of a martial arts background, I can’t say for sure, but I have to believe ANY physical activity can be helped by a study of material arts. I have studied fighting arts for 54 years and kayaked for 4 years, so 50 years of activity and 4 years of kayaking is not a fair comparison.

But in my life I have done ice climbing, rock climbing, sky diving, a small amount of SCUBA diving, big game hunting, wilderness travel, and professionally have been involved with security work and military training of of allied nations, and I’d have to say that a martial arts back ground was very helpful to nearly all of them physically, and absolutely all of them mentally.
Starting such training is never going to be a bad thing if you have a good instructor.


Not advice, just comments. Benefits will vary by the activity you choose. Going to a gym and learning a martial art aren’t likely to have same benefits, both are “better”. I also think there’s a huge range of what “going to the gym” means…ranging from hating to hang out with weight-lifting jocks to loving it because you just do the activities you enjoy.

The benefits I get from going to the YMCA include:

  • working on self-improvement in an environment where everyone is working on self-improvement

  • lots of options - I can get cardio through swimming or I can go burn 600 calories in 30 minutes on a machine in the cardio room. I can also choose the machines and equipment I use for resistance training so I only use machines I like. If you want to focus on strength related to paddling they have the ideal equipment in a gym.

  • plenty of folks are getting their cardio through games like pickleball or handball.

  • you learn from other people and can update/change your own fitness routine when you see someone else doing something interesting.

  • efficiency - I can get solid strength training in 3 hours a week. Same with cardio…lots of options for a challenging but quick workout. Or I can swim a few times a week and skip everything else without guilt if I like. I think that getting a good workout efficiently is one area where a gym excels

  • if I wanted to try a martial art they offer classes right at the YMCA…so personally I would not have to choose between learning a martial art and going to the gym, I would do both.

I like the YMCA because it’s not a snobby place and I enjoy the diversity of the people that go there.

You should get more balance out of martial arts than regular gym rat work. This is never a bad idea for kayaking.
It may also leave you with increased ability to control anxiety and solve the problem if you get in what feels like over your head. I think you paddle solo? Probably would be a good thing if you feel that is an area of risk for you.

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If you are not into a fighting sport maybe Pilates will help with balance and range of motion.

To me the best balance and range of motion exercise is Judo. It is not really an attack style, but more defensive and using your body to make use of your opponents energy.

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My wife and I have found Pilates to be very helpful.

Check your Medicare Advantage plan, you may be able to get free classes like we did.

Just don’t get mad at your kayak. :sob:

Thanks everyone! All interesting info, I guess I need to think more about it….

I was just having a conversation relating to this today, on a short local kayak outing with an old (though younger than me) friend – the day was our last hurrah on the river before the weather here turns much colder.

This friend says he enjoys paddling but he always looks so uncomfortable to me. He paddles (in whichever of my sea kayaks I loan to him) leaned back as if he was in the lowest reclining position of a Barcalounger. See photo below. As tactfully as possible I asked him this time if he had difficulty paddling in an upright position. He explained that even when he was not paddling, it required great strain and discomfort to merely sit up straight in the cockpit. He’s not generally out of shape, in fact he frequently hikes steep trails, volunteers with trail building and does a LOT of road biking. But he admits that he really does no exercise that works his abs and knows they are flabby. I have noticed this with several other friends I’ve taken out paddling who are avid cyclists like he is – they all seem to have very poor core tone and inflexible hamstrings and do the same painful-looking slouch lounging in the cockpit – I have found I have to bring chunks of pool noodle to prop them up in the seat when I take them on day trips.

Today I had gone to great lengths to make sure the well-outfitted cockpit in my Easky LV was set up for him with proper foot peg position and seat adjustments. And the seat in this boat can be unfolded to provide a higher back support, which I thought might help (but clearly did not.) Also gave him a properly sized carbon shaft Werner paddle.

My attempts to get him to alter his stroke came to naught, as he found it impossible to sit up straight. So he paddled in this splayed position for 3 hours (and needed to stop and get out on shore to stretch halfway through the outing) and reported at the end of the trip that his shoulders and upper back felt very stiff and tired (no surprise there). While I’m glad that he enjoyed the outing (at least he said he did), I admit I winced to see him out there flailing like this.

When I paddle I barely even contact my low backbands and have no trouble staying comfortably erect all day high angle stroking with a GP. (shot he took of me today below, in blue and yellow boat). I maintain the same position when sitting at my desk or driving my car. I don’t consider myself highly fit but I did regularly study and practice dance in my youth and 20’s (ballet and modern) and, from my 30’s on, was active in martial arts training (Shotokan karate, Tai Chi and Aikido). All of the conditioning routines in these activities have strong focus on core ab strength and flexibility. Though I have not been in a dojo or a studio since before covid, I still keep the warm-up practices as part of my regular fitness – I find if I don’t keep them up I will start to have lower back discomfort during walking or standing, so that’s enough incentive to persist (I’m 73 and have moderate osteoporosis).

I don’t think it’s just a coincidence that some of the most skilled paddlers I’ve personally known over the years have been regular martial arts practitioners. in fact my earliest mentor in good technique was both a former Canadian national champion in competitive kayak racing and a practicing senior Aikido black belt. And when I have been at kayak skills camps, I have noticed many of the more advanced paddlers (all GP users) do daily Hatha Yoga or Tai Chi. (Dubside usually offers dawn yoga at the camps where he’s a mentoring coach.)

I don’t know what can be done to help my stiff-backed friends paddle more comfortably and effectively. I think they need some cross-training, and I suggested he might consider a martial art (or Pilates. another great option for increasing body control and flexibility).

Meanwhile, I may suggest that this friend try my solo canoe next time we venture out. Maybe the raised canted seat and potential for kneeling would be better suited to his current body mechanics.

A good simple core exercise to increase core strength is the Plank. The first time you are introduced to it, you’ll think that looks easy. Pilates has lots of good core strengthening exercises. My wife and I did yoga each morning for a number of years. Yoga is great for staying limber. Paddling a kayak properly is also a great core strengthener.


This hits it for me. Most physical training regimens will help you develop strength, stamina and flexibility. But not all will help you deal with an “adrenaline dump.” Adrenaline occurs will you perceive a possibility of physical harm and a full blown “adrenaline dump” occurs when you sense danger to very life. Adrenaline can help or hurt you, depending on your ability to control it or not.

There are different types of martial arts practices as there are types of paddling. Some are in pursuit of the “Do” (the “way”) and the art is more concerned with and used for self development - physically and mentally. Then there is “jutsu” which is more concerned about actual efficacy in real life application and requires testing in increasingly stressful and realistic manner. The latter involves resisting opponents and a real or perceived chance of physical pain or harm when technique fails. This type of training always involves some level of adrenaline release, during which the practitioner learns to control response and function through it.

A full adrenaline dump leads to “fight, freeze, or flight” reaction. The more you have experienced with adrenaline release, the more you can immediately implement your action of choice, be it “fight or flight.” What you don’t want is full blown panic and “freeze.”

If one is not familiar with what adrenaline does to physical skills, it’s worth a google.


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I took formal training at the Diemon Dave Ninji school.


Castoff is more likely to find an instructor like him in the wilds of nowhere SC.

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Martial arts are a good complement to almost any physical activity because they encourage mental discipline.

No, no, I try to avoid the Marshal. I didn’t know he was an artist! I’m fixin’ to build a liteweight waveski from beer cans. I collect them at boat ramps and the side of the road.

Don’t be discouraged. I get the impression you’re relatively new to kayaking. There is a difference between being cautious yet still willing to learn and try, and being just plain cocky, OVERconfident.

Remember those awful No Fear decals and bumper stickers cropping up everywhere a couple decades or so ago? Came across more as arrogant braggadocio than courage. I don’t remember many women sported those stickers.